Cultural Conundrum What Does It Mean To Be a Hamburger?

AFP

Part 2: A Port Town's Fading Culture of Shipping


The other bank of the Elbe, the southern shore, offers the best view of the Elbphilharmonie. It's just too bad that it is obstructed by the container cranes of the Eurogate terminal, the A7 highway bridge, a tank train and the Yang Ming Width, a ship flying the Hong Kong flag with a loading capacity of 14,000 containers.

Fourteen thousand containers -- and only 23 crewmembers. With the exception of one Ukrainian, they're all from the Philippines. Some of the crewmembers sit in the yard of the city's seaman's mission, called the Duckdalben, around a cartload of local Holsten beer and play with their mobile phones. The ships are getting even bigger, the crews are getting even smaller and the breaks in between, shorter. The port is always faster, always fuller.

Anke Wibel is the deacon of the seaman's mission. She's been here for 22 years and is married to a sailor herself. Once a mainstay on the sailors' tour through Hamburg, the city's famous red-light district is now something they only see on postcards in the window display of the seaman's mission. They can send one home as a token souvenir. But the sailors know little to nothing about the changes happening on the north shores of this new Hamburg, Wibel says. "Apart from the fact that there is one more monument at the entrance. But they don't even have enough time to look at it. We take some of them down to the old tunnel under the Elbe River where they can cross over and head into town. But then all they want to do is go to an electronics store or the bargain supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. Sailors are very poor. They feed their whole family with their wages."

They use their smart phones to scan the display in the shop and then their family at home can choose something -- say chocolate or gummy bears. They might buy some Asian instant noodle soup because it reminds them of home. Then they go out and shoot some pool. It's the game of sailors. It's proof that they have solid ground under their feet.

Ironically, the large groups of sailors who helped create Hamburg's unique character -- its port, the red-light district or Reeperbahn and Portuguese quarter populated by immigrant dock workers -- are no longer to be found in the city, at least not in the same numbers. They've been supplanted by stag party revelers decked out in sailor costumes who have booked red-light tours guided by "Titty Tina" through the former strip club, Ritze, to the 39 euro flat-rate brothel "Cheap Club" or to the latex catheter displays at the Boutique Bizarre.

It's like trash TV in 3D. Good for attracting a high quota of overnight guests. As are Hamburg's famous Broadway musicals, of which there are four -- including two in the former port area. Rainer Moritz speaks of an increasing "eventization" of culture in Hamburg, and he includes the Elbphilharmonie in this phenomenon.

History's Revenge

It's history's revenge. If only they had calculated like merchants back then, they would have a "Media City Port" instead of a concert hall for 789 million euros today. Indeed, it's only because Hamburg ignored some common-sense business rules long ago that it is able to call itself a cultural capital today. But it comes at a price. And there are already dark clouds on the horizon: Hamburg's reserve bank Nordbank HSH is in deep trouble -- another project that the city is backing with billions of euros. It's things like this that are troubling people like Mathias Petersen.

There are families in Hamburg for which City Hall was always like a second home. The Sievekings for example or the Petersens. Mathias Petersen belongs to both families. One of his great-grandfathers was a mayor, as was his grandfather after the war. Several of his ancestors, among them former senators, have parks and foundations named after them.

If an unflattering story about stolen ballot papers in the Social Democratic Party hadn't surfaced a few years ago, Petersen may have been sitting where current Mayor Olaf Scholz is sitting right now. "I'm a doctor living in Altona," says Petersen referring to one of the city's main neighborhoods in an interview that takes place between patient visits. "Politics was always just a hobby for me."

When asked what to make of this "new Hamburg" that has the world's attention with the flashy new concert hall and everything else, he says the same thing that his ancestors might have said: "The people who live and have roots here don't need this self-confidence boost. Period. We have it even if we don't talk about it. There was never any need to say, 'We have to build some kind of building so that the world will see us.' The world has seen us through our actions and still does today. We don't need a building like this in order for that happen." It's a city whose business leaders have traveled the world to do deals and where even his own grandfather spent 20 years in Siberia establishing a company office. It doesn't need a calling card.

And that applies particularly to the G-20 summit. It's an open secret that Social Democratic Party officials in the city agreed to swallow hosting duties for the G-20 in exchange for support from Berlin for Hamburg's 2024 Summer Olympics bid. But Hamburg residents themselves had had enough of major construction projects and obsessive security, and it was they who rejected the city's Olympics bid in a referendum.

As a Hamburg native, Petersen says he doesn't see it "as being an absolute imperative to travel around the world and say: We're the city with the Elbphilharmonie." He says he'd prefer to emphasize the city's advanced technological and research centers -- places like the German Electron-Sychrotron, or Desy, a German research institution that is currently testing the new European X-ray free electron laser.

Culture Alone Can't Save City

Petersen is a doctor and a politician, but above all, he's a citizen of Hamburg and, as such, looks at what really matters -- the port that made the city so famous. "We've had lower and lower amounts of freight for years now. That has now caught up with the shipping magnate Bertram Rickmers (whose company said it would file for bankruptcy last month). We need to look out, because cultural events alone will not be enough to save the city."

And neither are the tourists who come to the city, and for whom the port is just part of the scenery.

The last word, however, belongs to Horst Huhn. Not because his initials happen to be HH, which is also short for "Hanseatic City of Hamburg," but by virtue of his job. He literally sets the tone in Hamburg when he's on duty, at 10 in the morning and at nine in the evening. That's when he stands in the tower of St. Michael, Hamburg's most famous church, opens a tower window to the east, blows the spit out of his trumpet briefly, takes a deep breath and plays a hymn for the city down below.

The song titles represent his take on the day. "Oh how fleeting, oh how void," for example. Or another entitled "I cannot believe it yet," in C major, in triple rhythm. Huhn is one of Michel's so called Türmer or tower trumpeters and he always chooses his songs at the last minute. He flips through the tattered, pencil-annotated church hymnal book and chooses something according to his mood and that might fit the city's current vibe.

The tradition of the tower trumpeter has been in place for the last 350 years, since the very opening of the Michel. "Sometimes parents come and say that their child can only fall asleep after I play," says Huhn, who decided to take up the trumpet as a child when he heard the tunes from the tower.

Today, Huhn chooses No. 477, a song entitled, "Calm are all the forests now." He hasn't played it in a long time and a bit of reflection can't hurt these days.

First to the east, then south, west, north. From up here you can see everything. Around Alster Lake with its villas, the workers' neighborhoods in the east, Barmbek and Hammerbrook, the proud City Hall with the even prouder adjoining Chamber of Commerce, the fairgrounds sitting beneath the television tower, already sealed off for the G-20 summit. The hilly Elbe shores in the Blankenese neighborhood. And in the south, the other Hamburg: Wilhelmsburg, with its typical red brick buildings, the Veddel neighborhood, sheep pastures, levees, biker gang clubhouses and the famous flak bunker. But most of all, the scenic port panorama, still a breathtaking sight for the tower trumpeter, even after all these years.

The Michel has tied it all together, not without effort, but still. We'll see, says Huhn, whether or not the Elbphilharmonie has the same effect or not. "It could have been done better. That much money for just two concert halls?" Huhn is now 61 years old. He used to play baroque and contemporary music in Bilbao and Lisbon and Nantes. There are excellent modern concert halls in those cities too. He says he's not totally comfortable with all the hype.

He opens the tower window to the south where he has seen the new landmark of Hamburg plodding skyward arduously for the last few years, right into his harbor view. "Well," he says, taking a deep breath and paying particular attention to choose the right approach. Because like all musicians, with all their skepticism and seriousness, he believes that every sound has meaning. It just has to be the right one.

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skraft16 06/27/2017
1. Since this is Der Spiegel's English-language website, and that the U.S. is the largest English-speaking nation
I might be wisest to avoid titling a story "What does it mean to be a Hamburger" :) This is perhaps the greatest food-related German/English linguistic faux pas since John F. Kennedy proudly proclaimed "Ich bin ein Berliner".
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